On his first full day in office, President Trump visited the Central Intelligence Agency in an apparent bid to rebuild trust and cooperation between his administration and a segment of the federal workforce he has maligned in recent weeks.
As he stood in front of a marble wall marked with 117 stars to commemorate agency employees who died in the line of duty, he joked about the election, bragged about the crowds at his inauguration the day before, and zigzagged between messages of support for the intelligence community and denunciations of the news media. Ignoring the well-documented series of provocative statements he has made in recent weeks, he accused journalists of fabricating his quarrels with the intelligence community.
"I can only say that I am with you 1,000 percent," Mr. Trump told about 400 CIA workers, before shifting gears, as Politico reported. "And the reason you're my first stop ... is that as you know I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth. Right? And they sort of made it sound like I have this feud with the intelligence community."
But Trump's assertions do not square with his previous ones: Earlier this month, after a number of publications reported on the existence of an eyebrow-raising dossier packed with unverified claims – a document BuzzFeed decided to publish in full, drawing criticism from other outlets – Trump suggested that intelligence officials had leaked the document to undermine him.
"Are we living in Nazi Germany?" he asked Jan. 11 in a tweet – a line he repeated later that day during his first news conference as president-elect.
"I think it was disgraceful – disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out. I think it’s a disgrace, and I say that – and I say that, and that’s something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do," Trump said. "I think it’s a disgrace that information that was false and fake and never happened got released to the public."
In two tweets on Jan. 15, he insinuated that CIA director John Brennan, who has since left office as part of the government transition, might have been "the leaker of Fake News." Mr. Brennan denied the allegation and through a spokesman denounced Trump's speech at the CIA.
Brennan is "deeply saddened and angered at Trump's despicable display of self-aggrandizement" in front of the CIA's memorial wall, and "Trump should be ashamed of himself," former CIA deputy chief of staff Nick Shapiro wrote Saturday in two tweets.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, ranking member in the US House Intelligence Committee, was among those who critiqued Trump's speech.
But the criticism did not fall neatly along party lines. Michael Hayden, a Republican former CIA director, said Trump fell short of his objective.
"I was heartened that the President gave a speech at CIA," Director Hayden told CNBC in an email. "It would have been even better if more of it had been about CIA."
The ostensible objective of Trump's visit to the CIA was to rebuild a collaborative spirit between his immediate team and the intelligence officials in the wake of the public quarrel. But the tension between the White House and the intelligence community is not novel to Trump's nascent administration, as The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Grier wrote last week. Many presidents past, especially Richard Nixon, have had friction with their intelligence services.
"In the end, however, almost all presidents have come to terms with and benefited from intelligence agency information flow," Mr. Grier wrote. "In part that’s because they all eventually face a global crisis where they need to know as much as possible, fast. In part that’s because the CIA and its fellows focus on making the relationship work. They see the president as their First Customer and know that POTUS can determine the extent of their influence on US national security."
Trump's pick to head the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R) of Kansas, is slated for confirmation Monday, and the hearings could serve as a milestone in the transition from former President Barack Obama's CIA and the one serving under Trump.
Even if a new director serves as an adequate liaison between the White House and intelligence officials, there is no sign yet that Trump has any plans to change his ways, including – perhaps foremost – an at-times brash tone.
"Stylistically, he’s a pugilist, with a penchant for sarcasm, bold, sometimes bombastic language, and a deep understanding of how to grab the headlines," Brian Rosenwald, political historian and media expert at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Monitor. "He’s also not bound by facts in the way that typical politicians would be."